Thursday, 20 February 2014

Surfing 101: A Seppo Barney Kook

So among the top of the goals I have set for myself living abroad here are two distinct milestones: scuba dive the barrier reefs, and learn how to surf.  I got cracking on the latter of those this past weekend.

As someone who acts like they understand art: surfing is a art form. Kinetic energy forms way out in the depths of the ocean and, through a series of rifts, currents, wind and atmosphere, manages to make its way ashore in the form of a single wave; a single direction of fluid matter and force, enabling those with ability to tap into it, managing friction, inertia, and gravity all at once... to harmoniously connect to the spirit of the ocean as it makes its way ashore.  The most popular way to do-so is using a 7-foot long, meticulously carved piece of artwork known, most commonly, as a surfboard.

Spoiler alert: surfing ain't easy. I’ve snowskied, waterskied, snowboarded, wakeboarded, and wakesurfed all without much problem.  I even consider myself a quiet master of the Ripstick (for those that know).  But surfing… surfing is some serious work!  Unlike wakeboarding, there is no motor to pull you up and, unlike snowboarding, there is no hill to sit down on when you get too tired to continue.  You are simply paddling for your life the entire time you are out there and hoping, just maybe, you are in the right place at the right time, moving fast enough in the right direction to actually catch a wave, at which point you then fight the odds on being swift enough to stand up.  I’m assuming everything after that is a cake walk.

Zac lives up in Manly Beach and, because there was a surf competition going on this past weekend, decided to host a poker night as his place.  I hopped on the ferry and made it up there right after noon so I could catch some of the action.  When I arrived, a few of the guys were already hanging out so we, weathering the bogus rainy weather, decided to go catch the late heats of the surfing semi-finals down on the beach.

Watching a surf competition is like attending a baseball game, in my opinion.  You're often so busy people watching that you forget why you're even there until something important happens. And by then, you've missed it completely. Once the heats ended, we snagged some Chipotle-worthy Mexican grub and headed back to the apartment.  Zac, at this point, offered to take me out for a surf lesson.

He offered me a wetsuit top, which I reluctantly accepted (Thank God! Or else my nipples would have rubbed off and be halfway to New Zealand by now) and, as we were leaving, he looked at the guys and said, “We’ll probably be back in 45 minutes... (looking at me now) no offense Jared.”  I laughed, wrote this off as a clear underestimation of my athleticism and aptitude for board sports… whatever. I borrowed a board and we marched out towards the beach.

Before I begin, let’s talk about how ideal this scenario is real quick.  Zac, my only American coworker, lives about two blocks from Manly Beach, the longest beach in Sydney, well known for its surfing prominence, and has about five surf boards he rotates through, creating an excellent opportunity for me to learn the art of surfing without taking on any significant financial burden. Not to mention I’m lucky enough to have a confidant that really knows his stuff.

Back to my baseball reference... and even moreso to reference one of my favorite childhood movies: The Sandlot. Imagine Zac, the native Hawaiian, the been-doing-it-since-birth Surf King, as Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez was in the Sandlot.  A master in his trade.  And here I am, Scotty Smalls, a pipsqueak inland-American nobody.  As I'm paddling out into the surf, I found myself reciting in my head over and over, just as he did, "Don't be a goofus! DON'T BE a goofus!"

For those of you that have never surfed outside of the Gulf of Mexico, or another clearly inadequate American coastline, I'm sure you picture it like this:
  • Grab your surfboard
  • Cruise on out into deep water
  • Wait for a good-looking wave to break
  • Kick/paddle a few times
  • Stand up, enjoy the glory, and ride carelessly back into the beach
Reality check... it's a whoooole lot more than that, especially in Manly Beach this past Saturday. First off, hands down, the single hardest part of surfing is actually getting all the way the $%&# out there, past where the waves break over your head and just bury you in a salty grave of turmoil, only to lose twenty-feet of ground, reset and try again. Paddle paddle, get smashed, paddle again. Repeat.

I'm trying desperately to keep up with Zac as we work to get past the breaks.  Every muscle in my body already aches and I can barely breathe.  I'm convinced his board is floatier than mine and waxed with Waffle House butter, but nonetheless, every time he looks back, I try and maintain a look on my face that I'm doing just fine and that my heart rate isn't 190 bpms.  We finally make it.

Now, in order to look you aren't a complete "Kook" or "Barney" (both bogus rookie surf terms), you're expected to not wade in the water with your arms hanging over your board, but rather mount the damn thing like a mechanical bull and casually sit upright and out of the water looking for waves on the horizon. Truth be told: this is really difficult and extremely uncomfortable.  Once I'm able to actually climb onto my surfboard and position myself at a seemingly sustainable point of buoyancy, I then have to hinge both my knees inward and keep this thing in submission by tightening my calves under it like a Jui Jitsu fighter... which would be only mildly tough if we were in a lake or a pool, only we're in the freaking Pacific Ocean!

Here's where compounding variables kick in... there's a surf competition that just finished 100 yards down the beach and, despite the shit weather, every able-bodied surfer and his brother seems to be out in the ocean around us.... Queue my feeling of extreme self-consciousness.  I can tell that THEY can tell that I have no clue what in the world what I'm doing.  Granted, I do have a loyal surfing Sensei advising me, but with a dozen Aussie-born wave crushers on either side of me, I can't help but feel vulnerable and extremely "in the way."  I'm like a buoy with a sharp edge attached to it and it's actually palpable how much these dudes wish I wasn't there. But as my faithful colleague has reminded me, everybody has to start somewhere. I do my best to shake it off.

Zac is being extremely patient at this point. I get the concept and am doing my best... the wave comes, I paddle, I lose. Then, in order to not get swept all the way back onto the beach, I'm forced to climb back onto this wretched piece of styrofoam and plexiglass and use every ounce of strength to paddle back out past the breaks.  I'm again trying to play it off like I haven't been out of breath since our feet left the shoreline. I've swallowed probably two full Nalgenes of saltwater at this point. I'm gasping for air, but all I can taste is the Mexican food we had for lunch less than an hour ago (bad form). I give him a thumbs up, and we continue.

Now having grown up spending many a summer on the touristy beaches of the Florida Gulf, I was quite the dick-dragging boogie boarder... so my ability to actually know a worthy wave from a waste of time was pretty solid. Problem is, every time I spotted one and tried to paddle into it, I'd for some reason get so excited that I'd close my eyes, black out immediately, and come to in the midst of what I like to call the "Blender Effect" -- which is where the force of the wave flips you upside down and you're cast into a tumbling vortex of sea foam for 8-10 seconds before being able to resurface, narrowly missing having one of your eyebrows carved off by the whirling death fins of your own surfboard.  There's only so much of this a man can handle.

To give myself credit, I did catch one solid wave... at the right time and right place with my back arched and eyes open, only I was so surprised I forget to pop my feet up underneath me and actually partake in this thing they call "surfing" (boogie-boarder instinct kicked in I guess).  I didn't care. I looked back and Zac was smiling.  We'll call that progress.

I gave it a few more goes and, once the muscles in my lower back were tweaking with electric shock and both calves cramping to the point of grabbing the balls of my feet and pulling them towards my knees underwater, I figured it was time to call it a day.  It took me 10 minutes to doggie-paddle ashore, hobbling along trying to avoid the ever-pressing embarrassment of all my muscles locking up and me drowning in 5-feet of water.

We both get back to the beach. My head is POUNDING like Beethoven's 5th Symphony. Every orifice in my head is filled to the brim with sand and saltwater and I'm limping like a stork trying to keep my toes from curling and re-initiating a series of unrecoverable lower body cramps.  We get back finally and, despite my struggles, I'm proud to have known I spent probably two solid hours out in the surf holding my own. As the sliding doors to the lobby open up, I ask Zac to check his watch for the time:

It had been exactly 45 minutes.

Commence a great night of poker and belligerence. A few Advil had me back on my feet and we enjoyed a solid night of flops, turns, and rivers -- most of which completely screwed me and stole my chips. However, I enjoyed a well-deserved night's rest and, despite the vivid Maker's Mark hangover, I headed back out to surf again around noon because, why not?  The second time around was much more comfortable, as I'd regulated my pace and set my expectations. That being said, it wasn't nearly as worthy of a lengthy blog narration as the day preceding, so I'll leave it at that. Give me another day or two out there, and I plan to report some real success as a would-be Seppo surfer.

There are muscles in my core I haven't used in years that are still, now three days after my last attempt, sore as they can be.  Yet all I can think about is the next chance I'll have to get back out there.  Truly addicting, this is.

Stay tuned folks. More to come.


  1. As a former surfer (albeit Corpus Christi and Galveston) I feel your pain, if only Gulf Coast waves! Good story and good luck on your next venture into the surf! Hang Ten!

  2. Don't worry about the board getting you. Just fear the coral! Ouch